Invisibility is not just a problem for black wine professionals in America. Winemaking stretches back four centuries in South Africa, a nation in which discrimination and racial violence were long sanctioned by apartheid.
After that system was swept away at the end of the 20th century, Ntsiki Biyela became South Africa’s first black female winemaker. In 2016, she established her own label, Aslina Wines.
When she arrived in 1998 at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape to study wine, she did not speak Afrikaans, a major language of the region. Her fellow students asked why she had even bothered coming there.
“It wasn’t the question, it was how it was asked, with that underlying part of saying, ‘You’re not welcome here,’” she recalled by email.
As she moved into her career, it was difficult at first to interact with growers from whom she wanted to buy grapes. “They didn’t want to deal with you: ‘You’re black, what do you know about wine?’” she said.
One of Ms. Biyela’s biggest challenges has been to build an audience for wine among black South Africans, who have not traditionally consumed wines. A major problem she has identified is the language used to describe wine, which is full of obscure flavor references that are not always familiar to many black South Africans who are not well-versed in European winespeak.
While the white-dominated wine industry in South Africa sticks with the standard language, virtually ignoring a huge group of potential customers, Ms. Biyela has worked to find references that are more commonplace. Instead of saying a wine smells like truffles, she said, she might say it smells like amasi, a sort of fermented milk.
“When discussing with black people, I would explain that since I got into the industry I have managed to associate the flavors of the wine to what I know,” she said. “You don’t have to go by what the back of the label says. You can create your own things.”